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Tuesday 26 September 2023 Dublin: 12°C
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# Abuse
Sexual and domestic abuse victims can feel 'belittled' by social workers, report finds
Victims interviewed by the National Women’s Council said that feeling blamed by professionals made them want to abandon court proceedings.

SEXUAL AND DOMESTIC violence victims in Ireland have reported feeling “belittled” and made to feel “guilty” by the justice system, a new report has found.

The report by the National Women’s Council (NWC), recommends reforms across the justice system in order to better serve survivors reporting domestic and sexual abuse.

It noted that a significant cause for some victims wanting to pull out of court proceedings was a lack of understanding of domestic and/or sexual violence on the part of the professionals they dealt with.

The ‘Criminal Justice, Private Family Law and Public Law Child Care Processes’ report included interviews with victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

“We heard of people feeling “belittled”, “stupid” and “guilty” for staying for so long in a home in which domestic and/or sexual violence was taking place and so being responsible for letting that situation persist, being made to feel that they were responsible for exposing their children to such an environment by not reporting it immediately, packing their bags and taking the children out of the house the first time that the violence occurred,” the report reads.

“Having taken steps to inform a professional of the violence that they were experiencing, only to hear such questions which they experienced as accusations leveled against them, triggered a shut-down response in many victims and a desire to disengage from all of the processes in which they found themselves.”

The report called for specialist trauma-informed training for social workers to be made mandatory in order to better educate them on the complexities of coercive control.

The NWC recommended that training be provided for student social workers as well as by their employers.

‘Face the ordeal of court alone’

The report also called for a better support structure for victims of domestic or sexual violence “throughout the entire journey of the various legal processes “.

Victims who spoke to the NWC felt that they would not have been able to proceed with the court process without the support of a person who provided, in the words of one interviewee, a “steadying presence” in the chaotic court experience.

Some of those people were working in a voluntary capacity for non-government organisations, others were employed on a part-time basis due to the limited level of funding that their organisation received.

Only a small number of organisations had sufficient funding to employ some full-time staff, while many people supporting victims though the court process couldn’t attend every court appearance due to the lack of staff.

The report noted: “That workload was unsustainable before the Covid-19 pandemic, but the situation has worsened considerably now. We heard how increasingly the staff are compelled by lack of staffing resources to leave victims, already traumatised by what has happened, to face the ordeal of court alone.”

It also called for court support staff to be resourced and trained for diverse and unique types of victims, such as migrant victims, Travellers, people with a disability and members of the LGBTQI community.

The report noted that the in-camera rule, which requires family law matters to be held in private, often leads to a victim’s assigned court-support person being turned away from entering the court without a legal basis given as to why.

The report called for the rule to be amended to allow victims to speak about their case with court personnel, therapists, and other relevant parties, who would be bound by confidentiality obligations.

One of the report’s authors Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop said:  

“The report is a call to action to address the unique needs of victims of domestic and sexual violence within the court system. It is vital that any changes stem from a victim-centered approach, which is at the forefront of our recommendations.”

“Having a wraparound system of both court and non-court support for victims throughout the entirety of the legal processes is vital in developing a system which doesn’t cause additional stress and difficulties to victims of domestic and sexual abuse.”  

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